Has mobile phone technology peaked for a while?

Unless you are not on the Internet (in which case you aren’t reading this anyway), you already know that Apple had their big press event to launch the new iPhone. They put out a bunch of heavily manipulated and juked stats that as usual, the press responded to with enthusiasm instead of the skepticism anyone else would have gotten and eventually, got to what everyone was there for: The iPhone 4S. Yep, no iPhone 5 this time around. The response from what I’ve seen online has been a resounding “Meh”. Boiled down to cold reality, the iPhone 4s is little more than an iPhone 4 with beefier stats, a 64GB SKU and at least in the US, availability on three carriers simultaneously at launch.

The highlights include using the same dual-core processor that the iPad 2 has (something most software developers are not utilising right now because requiring it means you alienate all previous model owners), a nicer 8MP camera and an apparently new antenna design that may actually you know, work. The biggest innovation is Siri, a new voice control system that allows a potentially crazy amount of flexibility and control, allowing you to arguably control most of the phone’s functions without touching it. It’s cool but likely doesn’t work nearly as well in the real world as in the demo and it’s not something I think most people will use for fear of looking weird in public. Apple’s stock price took a drop after it was revealed that the phone is not revolutionary, something which I think clearly demonstrates how volatile and dangerous the culture Apple creates can be. But I’m not here to be a mouthpiece for everything they’ve said, the press will take care of that for us all.

What struck me most in thinking about this was that as cool as Siri is, I think it was rolled out more to give Apple a big new selling point for the iPhone 4S rather than “Look, it’s the same thing, only slightly faster!” which is really all this update is. Siri requires the new processor to work so it is in fact something you can only get on the newest model. I think the main reason it didn’t see a revolutionary spec bump is because cell phone technology has come as far as it can for the time being. The only innovation they didn’t embrace with this that other phone manufacturers have is 4G, a technology whose current crop of chipsets destroy battery life and which is still only available in limited markets. Given the insane rise in power and features of smartphones from 2007 until now (something which blindsided many companies like RIM but that’s another post), I’m not at all surprised that advancement has slowed. Clueless stockholders are no doubt panicking that Apple has run out of ideas or something but come on, you can’t advance a segment of technology so fast and not eventually bump your head on the ceiling. This obviously doesn’t mean that things can’t improve further or that more innovations aren’t already being designed in labs. However, technological advancement eventually does reach a point where no matter how many engineers you throw at it, there are just some obstacles in the way (be they in design, manufacturing, implementation or just plain raw cost) that just can’t be solved in a single year. No doubt bigger things are coming but I think the crazy pace of evolution with smartphones is going to slow down a fair bit and I think the mega “world changing” announcements are going to come less frequently and be a little less impactful.

None of the other smartphone makers have the engineering and design resources Apple does but if any of them have some new killer feature they’ve been keeping in a drawer, now’s the time to spend a ton of R&D and PR money and make a huge splash with it. The iPhone 4S will of course sell like gangbusters (in many cases, to people who still have perfectly good iPhone 4s) but if there was ever a time when Apple was “down”, this is it and it’s time to seize the day. It will be interesting to see what the next big innovation is but I think people were a bit naive if they thought that the pace we’ve seen in the smartphone space could continue uninterrupted. Sometimes, you just run out of cool new stuff for a while.

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